Monthly Archives: November 2013

At Sixes and Sevens

An exciting family event had left me in an agitated state. I had lots of things to do but I just couldn’t focus. I mentioned to a friend that I was ‘at sixes and sevens’. She didn’t know what I meant. I explained that if you were ‘at sixes and sevens’ you were at loose ends, sort of befuddled and confused. Later I found the phrase in the Urban Dictionary. They defined it as a state of disconcertedness or off-kilterness, to be befuttered and betwixed.  I loved the sound of those descriptors!

 I hadn’t realized the idiom ‘at sixes and sevens’ wasn’t familiar to everyone.  I picked up the phrase from my Mom. My friend’s bewilderment about its usage had me curious.  Where did the saying originate?

Chaucer was the first to use the phrase in 1375 in a tragic romantic poem Troilus and Criseyde.  Later in his play Richard II, Shakespeare had the Duke of York say, “ All is uneven and everything is left at six and seven.”

  Long ago the idiom wasn’t considered polite. Francis Grose lists it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785. He says it refers to a state of confusion, a room with items scattered about or a piece of business that is unsettled. I liked that. It sounds ever so much nicer to say “My house is all at sixes and sevens” rather than “My house is a mess.”

 A ruling by the Lord Mayor of London in 1485 is cited as another origin of the phrase. At the time most tradespeople were organized into guilds and there was an order of precedence. The guilds were assigned a ranking depending on the year they’d been established. The guild of tailors and the guild of fur traders had been at loggerheads for more than a century because they had both been set up in the same year and both laid claim to sixth place on the ranking scale. To put a stop to the dispute the mayor decreed they would alternate between sixth and seventh place in successive years. Unfortunately that didn’t seem to settle things and the two guilds remained permanently at sixes and sevens with each other.  

 I had fun looking for cultural references to ‘sixes and sevens’. I discovered in 2002 a Norwegian symphonic gothic metal band called Sirena released an album called At Sixes and Sevens.  The phrase is the title of a romance novel by Rosie Harris about two British sisters in love with the same man. July of 2013 marked the first performance of Sixes and Sevens a nine- movement cantata. A collaboration between Pulitzer Prize winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon and English composer Mark Anthony Turnage it was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and an Irish orchestra Camerata Ireland.  At Sixes and Sevens is also the name of a 2011 comedic opera that explores the life and work of musical geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan.

There is also a bar in Brisbane, Australia called Sixes and Sevens that serves great wine from wooden barrels and features excellent sticky ribs and fish and chips. One reviewer calls it a delightful eating establishment with gregarious staff and a comfortable ambiance. Just the kind of place to go when you’re feeling at ‘sixes and sevens.’

Other posts about lesser known words and phrases…….

What’s Rubbering? 

A Rhizomatic Sunday


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Winnipeg Coffee Quest- Candidate #5

coffee at cafe c'amourWe’ve finally visited the last coffee shop in this fall’s quest for the best coffee shop in Winnipeg.  I’ve written about it on my Destination Winnipeg site. Got ideas for coffee shops we should check out next spring? 

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The Wittenbergs by Sarah Klassen- Should This Have Been A Teen Novel?

the wittenbergsI’m wondering whether Sarah Klassen’s new book The Wittenbergs wouldn’t have made a great teen novel. What do you think? I’ve put the post on my Destination Winnipeg site since Winnipeg is the setting for most of the book. 

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Mayan Human Sacrifice- Just a Hollywood Myth?

at chichen itza

Dave with our former student Renan at Chichen Itza

” It may be a myth. If it happened, it wasn’t on the grand scale that most people think.” We were visiting the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan province of Mexico with Renan an exchange student from Mexico both Dave and I had taught in our high school classes. Our expert guide had been hired by Renan’s father. The guide repeatedly made reference to the long held belief that Mayans practiced human sacrifice. He wanted us to question that assumption.

Mel Gibson’s Hollywood blockbuster Apocolyptico brought the history of the Mayan people into the limelight. Gibson’s movie recounts in gory detail the human sacrificial practices of the Mayans and cites them as the reason for the eventual downfall of Mayan civilization.

Our guide at Chichen Itza questioned Gibson’s theory. He said human sacrifice might never have happened among the Mayans, or if it did, it wasn’t a frequent practice. He told us Spanish Christians invented or greatly exaggerated the extent of the ritual of human sacrifice. They wanted to portray the Mayans as heathens in need of conquering and conversion.

at the ball court chichen itza

Dave at the ball court at Chichen Itza

Our guide, anxious to downplay the human sacrifice angle, wanted to show us all the progressive things the Mayans accomplished. We visited the massive Temple of Kukulkan. Shaped like a pyramid its construction encodes detailed information about the sophisticated Mayan calendar. We saw the Observatory, the building from which Mayan astronomers plotted the movements of the planets, the sun and the moon.

At the Ball Court we learned how highly trained Mayan athletes engaged in competitive sporting events. The Ball Court offered a stunning example of Mayan acoustical technology. A whisper at one end of the site could easily be heard by someone standing 545 feet away at the opposite end.

chichen itza

At the Temple of Ten Thousand Columns

We had our picture taken at the Temple of a Thousand Columns. It once housed an outdoor market where Mayan commercial ventures flourished. We stopped to admire beautiful designs on another building called The Nunnery. Its frescoes and engravings are a testament to the artistic achievements of the Mayans. Our guide took us past a large set of artillery-shell-shaped stones and showed us how they produced melodic tones when tapped with a stick. The Mayans were clearly accomplished musicians.

chichen itza mexico

After our tour I was convinced the Mayan civilization had been highly advanced but did that necessarily mean they hadn’t practiced human sacrifice? I had read that hundreds of bodies of supposed sacrifice victims had been found at Chichen Itza. Our guide had explanations. He said the mass graves the Spanish conquerors found were for victims of warfare not human sacrifice. He said other sites where bodies were discovered served as burial grounds for royalty, not death chambers for human sacrifice victims.

Mel Gibson’s movie Apocolyptico suggests the Mayans’ human sacrifice practices created a blood lust for killing that eventually destroyed their society. Some historians would disagree and claim it was contact with the European diseases the Spanish brought to Mexico that decimated the Mayans. Who is right?

chichen itza

Our guide explains his theories about the Mayans

We may never know. Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests anxious to eradicate the ‘heathen’ writings of the Mayan people had most of their manuscripts burned. Only a few remain and they do not provide enough information to decode Mayan hieroglyphics and thus find definitive answers to historians’ questions about the Mayans.

tulum ruins in cancun

Dave at the Mayan ruins at Tulum

History is constantly being rewritten as new information is brought to light and new questions are asked. Mel Gibson’s movie raised some troubling questions about the Mayan people. This may not be a bad thing. Perhaps it will encourage more North American tourists to leave the beaches and resorts of Mexico, and travel to places like Chichen Itza and Tulum to discover answers to questions about the great Mayan civilization for themselves.

Other posts about myths…….

The Colosseum – No Christians Fed to Lions 

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

The Myth That It’s Not Safe to Live in Winnipeg’s Exchange District


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Stick Stick Men

stick stick man chongqing

I met these ‘stick stick’ men in the Chinese city of Chongqing.  Like many cities along the Yangtze River, Chongqing is very hilly with winding steep stairs cut into the rocky cliffs which lead from one location to another. The ‘stick stick’ men make up an army of thousands of porters who walk around with their bamboo poles. These poles or sticks can form a yoke over their shoulders which they use to carry produce, baggage, textiles, appliances and even construction materials for strangers who hire them.

I marveled at the amazing strength of these men who climb up steep hills with heavy burdens. They work long hours for just a few dollars a day. Many are farmers who have been displaced because the government has flooded their land to build a huge hydro electric dam on the Yangtze. I spoke through an interpreter to some of the men. They are working to earn money to provide food for their families and an education for their children.  They are at the bottom of the Chinese social ladder but they want better prospects for their sons and daughters. Hope for a good future for the next generation inspires Chongqing’s ‘stick stick’ men.

stick stick man chongqing

Other posts about people in China……

Bamboo Gorge Boat Trackers

Faithless? Definitely Not!

Ai Wei Wei- Giving the Finger to his Home and Native Land

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What’s A Break Event?

I’d never heard of a break event before I read Robert Zacharias’ book Rewriting the Break Event- Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature. The idea of a ‘break event’ comes from sociologist Robin Cohen and literature professor Vijay Mishra.

They suggest communities forced to leave their country of birth often create a mythology around the trauma of the event that wrenched them from their homeland. Retelling the story of their dramatic dispersal affirms their identity as a community across geographical and generational lines. Jewish immigrants have their Holocaust story, Irish immigrants their potato famine story, Africans their slavery story, and Mennonites have their story of loss and suffering during the Russian Communist Revolution. That story has played a key role in the construction of their identity.

The cover of Rewriting the Break Event features a drawing of the 800- year old Chortitza Oak, a tree that is an important symbol for Mennonites because it is where they congregated when first arriving in Ukraine from Prussia.

At the Chortiza Oak in 2011

I visited the tree a few years ago and was struck, as was Zacharias, by the fact that it is almost dead and only standing because wires prop it up. Zacharias says that like the wires that keep that tree upright so the stories of Mennonite writers are supports that keep alive the memories of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine.

The former schoolhouse in my grandparents’ village of Gnadenthal- the only building built by Mennonites left in the village

During my visit to Ukraine I was reminded how evidence of the Mennonite sojourn in that country is rapidly disappearing. This lends added importance to the literature created by writers who describe the Mennonite golden age of prosperity in Ukraine and its catastrophic end during the Communist revolution. Zacharias says for many Mennonites that literature has become like a second set of Scriptures.

In Rewriting the Break Event Zacharias looks at five popular pieces of Mennonite literature. They all describe the same historical events but do so in very different ways. Some are theological narratives while others seek to define Mennonites as a distinct ethnic group and others explore the traumatic effects of the break event – the Communist Revolution. Which story provides the most accurate view?
Zacharias’ book is for an academic audience. It is not easy to read like Hans Werner’s The Constructed Mennonite another recent book that also explores how stories define us. If you haven’t read the five novels Zacharias examines- Al Reimer’s My Harp is Turned to Mourning, Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China, Sandra Birdsell’s The Russlander, Janice Dick’s Out of the Storm or Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe it is hard to wade through the detailed analysis of these works that comprise the body of this book.
The premise of The Break Event is an intriguing one however and I read the introduction and conclusion (which comprise almost half the book) carefully and with great interest.

My paternal grandparents both experienced The Break Event

I have listened to the spellbinding stories of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents who were involved in some very dramatic episodes during the break event. Zacharias’ book was a good reminder that the varying narrators of those stories, as well as the different purposes for which they told their stories, greatly influenced the nature of their account of the break event they presented. Zacharias’ book also made me think about the way I am retelling stories of my family’s involvement in the break event to a new generation. What is my purpose in trying to keep those stories alive?
In his conclusion Zacharias reminds us our perspective on the Mennonite experience in Ukraine will continue to be influenced by the new storytellers who will explore it in the future.

Related posts………….

A Family Story Heinrich and Gertrude Enns

The Constructed Mennonite

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Where Were You?

Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot? Wednesday on the Daily Show Tom Brokaw said that the assassination of President Kennedy was such a major turning point in history that most people who were alive at the time can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. 

My Grade Five Class in 1963 with our teacher Mr. Klassen. I am second from the left in the second row.

My grade five class at Southwood School in Steinbach in 1963 with our teacher Mr. Helmut Klassen. I am second from the left in the second row.

I was in my grade five classroom at Southwood School in Steinbach Manitoba when I heard the President had been shot. My classmates and I were in the middle of painting plaster of Paris maps of Canada we had made. Someone from the school office came to give my teacher Mr. Klassen the news and he turned on the radio so we could listen to the media coverage as we worked. We had just come back to school after the lunch break. Every classroom had a radio in those days because our music instruction classes were provided once a week over the air by  CBC radio. 

Even though we were Canadian kids we knew all about President Kennedy because our class had been following the civil rights debates in the United States. Our teacher had taught us about President Kennedy’s attempts to get a Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. We’d even had our own classroom debate on the issue of civil rights with the class divided into teams that argued for opposing views. 

I was quite a fan of the Kennedys and had a folder of magazine photos and newspaper clippings  saved about JFK and Jackie and the wider Kennedy family.  Later I used what became a  huge personal collection of Kennedy material  for a project I did on Robert Kennedy in my grade ten American history class. 

Our family had just bought our first black and white television in 1963 so I was able to watch some of the news coverage of the JFK shooting and funeral service at home. 

I was down on my hands and knees on the floor of my grade five classroom in the Southwood School in Steinbach, Manitoba painting a large plaster of Paris map of Canada when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Where were you? 

Other related posts………

The Old Kornelson School 

 A Published Author at Age 10

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Inspirational Teachers, Out of Control Generosity and Enriching Art

rejoice devotionals fall 2013My series of meditations are in the Rejoice devotional readings book this week. You can download the full book here. 

My assigned scripture passages for the week days were from Exodus 35-40 and on the weekend a little more variety with passages from Colossians, Jeremiah and Psalm 46.

I wrote about Inspirational Teachers, Out of Control Generousity, Enriching Art and Enduring Joy among other things. 

I have been writing for Rejoice for many years and appreciate the new things I learn as I explore my assigned Scriptures as well as the responses I get from people who have read my thoughts. 

Here is yesterday’s reflection as a sample of what my devotional writing is all about.

Wednesday November 20

Enriching Art

Then they brought to the tabernacle……………the hangings of the court…  Exodus 39: 33a and 40a

Read: Exodus 39: 32-43


Aunt Vi

Aunt Vi

My 90-year-old aunt Viola Schmidt recently published her autobiography. It included a section about her service to her congregation First Mennonite in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. One page featured photos of a series of large vibrantly colored felt hangings she’d made to display in the sanctuary during the advent season. They told the story of Jesus’ birth.

Grace Mennonite Quilt by Linda Klassen

Grace Mennonite Quilt by Linda Klassen

When my home congregation, Grace Mennonite in Steinbach, Manitoba celebrated our 50th anniversary, Linda Klassen, a gifted quilter created a huge wall hanging that visually depicted the story of our church family. Each colorful and intricately stitched section symbolized something important in the life and history of Grace Mennonite.

At the fall 2012 delegate gathering of Mennonite Church Manitoba a hanging in multiple shades of green was unveiled. Designed and quilted by Val Pankratz, the focus of the banner was the Mennonite Church olive branch and dove symbol. The background and border featured a myriad of intertwined branches and leaves outlined with thousands and thousands of tiny perfect stitches.

In Exodus 39 the Israelites donate hangings for the tent of meeting. In our present day many talented people also use their gifts to create hangings that add meaning and an important visual element to our worship spaces. These hangings help bring to life our history, our beliefs and the Biblical stories on which our faith is founded.

Respond: Thank you God for the way visual art can enrich our worship experience. Thank you for the gifted people who create that art.

Last year I reflected on my long association with the Rejoice publication. You can read about that in this blog post.

Eighteen Years of Rejoice Devotionals

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Was North America Created on the Back of a Turtle?

standing around a turtle effigy in herschel saskatchewan

Taking our places around the turtle effigy

“MaryLou stand here at the head.  Dave you stand at the tail.” On our recent visit to Ancient Echoes an interpretive history centre in Herschel Saskatchewan we encircled a turtle effigy and heard an aboriginal creation story involving the turtle.  Our guide placed us at key spots around the turtle so we could easily see its shape outlined with stones.

hearing a creation story by a turtle effigy

Our guide David Neufeld tells us the Turtle Creation story

An effigy is a stylized animal created out of dirt or rocks. There were once some 20,000 effigies on the prairies.  Turtle effigies were common since Plains Indians associated the turtle with long life, protection and fertility. Amongst many indigenous people there is a belief that the Great Spirit created North America by placing earth on the back of a turtle. Our guide David Neufeld told us a detailed and colorful version of that creation story. 

Because of that story our continent is sometimes referred to as Turtle Island. Who knows? The turtle effigy we saw in a farmer’s field in Herschel may have been used hundreds of years ago as a teaching spot to share the creation legend of the turtle. Those people of a distant time may have heard the story just as we did. 

Other posts about our visit to Ancient Echoes……..

A Great Plains Grizzly Lands up in Scotland

What Am I Doing on A Birthing Stone? 

Dave’s Vision Quest

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Winnipeg Coffee Quest- Candidate #4

women having coffeeWe finally made it to the fourth candidate in our quest for Winnipeg’s best cup of coffee. Read all about it on my Destination Winnipeg site. 

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